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“Beauty is terror”: The Secret History Review

The Secret History is by far one of my favourite novels, although this has only been the case since my second reading.

When I first read it in 2018 I found it to be a beautiful book but felt that the characters were a bit too unlikable. However, this time around it was like being greeted by old (and very weird) friends.  Yes, this is partly due to a feeling of nostalgia, but it is also largely down to the fact that I took my time to appreciate the characters more.

secret history

The story is narrated by Richard, a California kid who dreams of escaping his suburban life by attending Hampden college, an ‘Eastern’ university in Vermont, that offers established degrees in the humanities and arts. There he becomes fascinated with a group of people who act and dress like upper-class characters from a novel. He idealises them and is determined to join the elite Classics class in which the five attend. After much persuasion and dropping out of all his current classes he is allowed onto the course.

It is a small class containing only the five outsiders and Richard and is taught by the eccentric Julian. The tender way in which Richard describes him gives the impression of a loving father figure who, like Mr Keating in The Dead Poets Society, will teach them how to seize the day and appreciate art and culture.  Although partly true, we soon discover that like with most people he knows, Richard only sees the idealised version of Julian (which ironically he accuses Julian of doing).

Because the novel is narrated by Richard we never get to truly understand the other members of the group. He romanticises Camilla to the extent that the reader never gets to experience any of her personality, instead, she is reduced to an ethereal muse who’s blonde hair glows in the sunlight. When she occasionally does get the chance to voice her opinion Richard loses focus and begins to fixate on her physical attributes. This male gaze is wonderfully explored in most of Tartt’s work and opens the reader’s eyes to sexism. However, this means that she misses the opportunity to explore the psyche of her female characters.

When first introduced to Henry I found him arrogant and cold but this time around I began to notice little details that alluded to more behind those stern eyes. He is determined in his venture to live like the heroes of the classics he so loves, to experience life to its full potential. As we soon discover, poor Henry takes his enterprise too far and ends up accidentally killing a man whilst in a trance, during an ancient Greek ritual to escape consciousness. This is the catalyst to the main plot of the story as it is this action that leads to Bunny’s death and subsequent events thereafter. [No spoilers here].

Although cold and strange I don’t believe that Henry is a bad person. I think that he is disappointed that the world doesn’t live up to his dreamlike expectations, which is why he chooses to escape into the stories of the ancient world; and to be honest can’t we all relate? He just wants to feel something, which is why he decided to try and replicate the Greek ritual of out-of-body experience. He didn’t kill Bunny because he wanted to, he killed him to save the group and Camilla, who I believe he truly loved. On the second reading, I really got to understand Henry a little better than before, although Richard’s clueless-ness removes the hope of ever totally understanding him.

Bunny on the other-hand remains my favourite. Although loud and crass I believe that he is the most authentic of them all. Although we never get to see his true colours I do believe that it is the act of his façade that makes him real. Unlike the others he isn’t ashamed to show his bad side, he is sometimes obnoxious and cruel but he speaks his thoughts out loud. You can’t imagine Bunny scheming a secret plan to kill someone, like the rest of the group. Whilst they try to remain composed Bunny allows his emotions to show, however ugly. It is also easy to forget that his response to the murder is the only moral one. When reading you cannot help but wish that he will stop being so obvious about it all and to stop risking the group getting caught. However, he is the only one who seems affected by the murder and his reaction is a relatable one. Of course, you would panic and be frightened by your friends’ actions, and his behaviour is understandable. On reflection what is strange is the cool, collected behaviour of the others, why don’t they feel the guilt that Bunny does?

We do not gain much access to the other three characters, Francis, Camilla and Charles. Francis is a closet homosexual who wears chic black clothing and a pince-nez. Although his clothes are pretentious, he isn’t as arrogant as one would expect. He is quite a likeable character and you can’t help but sympathise with his unrequited love for Charles. Like Bunny, he too wears a mask to appear more sophisticated than he really is, though we soon see more of his true self when he is alone with Richard.

The twins however, remain an enigma throughout the novel. Thanks to Richard we never get to see Camilla’s true self and Charles never seems to express himself correctly. He is angry and defensive after Bunny’s murder and begins to rely heavily on alcohol. We never get to see what really happened during his many police interviews but are left with the impression that it didn’t go as smoothly as they have Richard believe.

What is so clever about the unreliable narrator is that it leaves you questioning everything that Richard experiences. He is desperate to become a part of the group but is never wholly successful. At times we are left just as confused and left out as Richard, which makes the characters and the novel so much more intriguing.

The beautiful imagery Tartt uses to describe the changing landscapes captures the beauty of nature and transports you straight to the historical college. The changing seasons are so acutely detailed that you can almost smell the crisp air as the leaves begin to turn.

What makes The Secret History so brilliant is Tartt’s ability to capture the multiple dimensions of her characters. Sometimes they are completely unlikeable and unjustified, but then they can be relatable and even admirable. No matter how you feel about the characters you are always invested in them.

This book is incredibly hard to put down; it is beautifully written, immersive and will remain with you long after you have finished reading. Tartt has the ability to make you feel things and evoke a strong desire to study classics in an old, picturesque university.

I give The Secret History ⭐5/5⭐

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